Second Sunday of Advent
While our surrounding culture smiles at images of jolly old St. Nick and the adorable infant Jesus, we encounter at Mass today the not-so-jolly, not-so-adorable John the Baptist. In lieu of red-and-white furs he sports camel hide; instead of a smooth-faced infant we have the scraggly beard of a wild man. Yet his message is not that far off from the familiar “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry…” Since this season has so many songs associated with it, let us use some of them as a means by which to understand our Gospel readings this week, to let them inform our daily life this Advent.
“Remember, O Thou Man” by Thomas Ravencroft, 1611 (a few select verses)
Remember, O thou Man/ O thou Man, O thou Man/ Remember, O thou Man/ Thy time is spent. Remember, O thou Man/ How thou camest to me then/ And I did what I can./ Therefore repent.
Remember Adam’s fall/ O thou Man, O thou Man/ Remember Adam’s fall/ From Heaven to Hell.
Remember Adam’s fall/ How we were condemned all/ To Hell perpetual/ There for to dwell.
Remember God’s goodness/ O thou Man, O thou Man/ Remember God’s goodness/ And promise made.
Remember God’s goodness/ How his only Son he sent/ Our sins for to redress./ Be not afraid.
In Bethlehem was he born/ O thou Man, O thou Man/ In Bethlehem was he born/ For mankind dear.
In Bethlehem was he born/ For us that were forlorn./ And therefore took no scorn/ Our sins to bear.
Today’s Gospel and the preaching of John the Baptist reminds us of something we sometimes forget in the midst of the joy of Christmas: Jesus was born to die. The reality of Easter is not separate from the reality of Christmas; they are inseparably united, and John the Baptist reminds us of this, telling us of a Lord that is to come, not gently as an infant but with such a fire that it would burn away sin. John admits that the baptism he offers—water for repentance—is but a surface cleansing, a symbolic washing that indicates an interior desire to be free of sin, but he cannot offer true freedom by it. The baptism the Lord offers cleanses the very soul of a man and not merely as a courtesy, but as a means by which He will save the man. Among those coming to see John there were many who rested on their faithful observance of the Law to the letter for their salvation, on their circumcision and their ancestral connection to Abraham: all these made them heirs to the promise, and to the Covenant with God. John is quick to challenge their security with the startling fact: being a descendant of Abraham is not a guarantee of salvation.
“Remember, O Thou Man” is one of the few Christmas hymns that reminds us that Abraham and the rest of us are descendants of Adam, through whom sin and death entered into humanity. Even Abraham awaited the Messiah for whom John was the forerunner; even Abraham was in need of a Savior. At Christmas we receive the promised offspring that would strike at the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), the gift the Father would give that all might inherit eternal life (John 3:16). When we heed the Baptist’s call to repent and reject sin we clear out space in our hearts and in our souls to receive the gift God is offering us this Christmas and, truly, at every Mass in the Eucharist: His Son. He was born to bear our sins, to die, to undo what was done in the Beginning so that eternal Life, not Death, would be our End. Prepare the way of the Lord in your heart this Christmas; let there be room at the inn.